Are cheat meals good or bad? Will a cheat meal ruin my progress?

See also: The 6 Biggest Diet and Nutrition Myths

For the few who don't know, a cheat meal is that 'special meal' you have once in a while where you're allowed to ignore the diet you're on, where you can live out your culinary fantasies. For those on a diet, cheat meals can be the ultimate haven.

So are they good or are they bad? Are they actually beneficial for a diet or are they a lie we tell ourselves so that we can 'cheat'?

In this post we'll go over:

  • Why are cheat meals a good thing?
  • Why are cheat meals a bad thing?
  • Diets you shouldn't cheat on
  • Should you have a cheat meal?



Why are cheat meals good?


First of all, we should distinguish between cheat meals and cheat days. A cheat meal is just a single meal that doesn't fit in with your diet, a cheat day is a whole day that doesn't fit in. Cheat meals can be good for you, cheat days are a bad idea.

While a cheat meal allows you some freedom, a cheat day will be too much, and may contribute to you building an unhealthy habit and being unable to follow your diet.

And that's the main thing we're talking about here. Building a habit.

When you go onto a radical new diet, even if you ease into it, it might feel a bit unnatural to you, and you will most likely be tempted to cheat on your diet and binge on sweets. Exercising cheat meals is a way to 'partially cheat', and allow yourself a little bit of leeway on your diet. The common thought to this is that, by allowing yourself this leeway, you'll be less likely to binge, and you'll do better handling your cravings (since research shows that dieting increases cravings).


The 90:10 rule:

The 90:10 rule

The most commonly touted rule is the 90:10 rule (A similar rule we wrote about was the 80:20 rule). The 90:10 rule states that 90% of your meals should comply with your diet, and 10% can be cheat meals.

If you eat 3 meals a day, then that's 21 meals a week, meaning that you can have 2 cheat meals every week (3 if you feel like you deserve it).

If you eat around 5-6 meals a day (because you're bulking up or simply burning a lot of calories working out), then that's 35 to 42 meals a week, meaning that you can have between 3 and 4 cheat meals every week (not bad).

This is a good system because it allows you to add some variance to your diet (rather than eating the same thing every day), while still keeping 90% of what you eat in line with whatever diet you are abiding by. The main feature, however of the 90:10 rule (and cheat meals in general), is that it requires a lot of discipline. If you burn through both of your allotted cheat meals in the first few days of the week, then you have to be able to accept that and stay on your diet until next Monday, maintaining this discipline is important for anyone attempting to incorporate cheat meals into their life.


Boosted metabolism:

You may have heard (or read) that a cheat meal will boost your metabolism.

This is, unfortunately, a myth.

Next time you read a blog that states this, check for sources. In most cases you will find that there are none.

The main theory behind the idea of cheat meals boosting your metabolism (and therefore helping you burn calories), lies behind the hormone leptin.

Leptin is a hormone responsible for suppressing hunger. The more leptin in your bloodstream, the less hungry you are in general. The theory that cheat meals boost metabolism goes somewhat like this:

  1. When you diet, leptin levels decrease
  2. Therefore you feel less full and satisfied
  3. Therefore you are more prone to break your diet and overeat
  4. HOWEVER; cheat meals will keep leptin levels high and make sure you don't cheat

There is unfortunately no rigorous scientific evidence to support this theory. In fact, this study from the NCBI in 2013, found that:

            "Changes in leptin, ghrelin or insulin sensitivity, taken alone, are not sufficient to predict weight regain following weight loss in free-living humans."


The study also found that, of 9 studies examining leptin and weight-loss, four found that there was no relationship between leptin levels and weight regain.


A 2006 study from the Mayo Clinic found that, in subjects who were overfed by 1000 calories (About 50% of what an adult female requires daily!), caused a short term increase in metabolic rate that plateaued after 5 weeks of overfeeding.

What was this increase? Well, in the first week of overfeeding, BMR (Basal metabolic rate) increased from around 1693 to 1711 calories a day, an increase of only 18 calories. Let me say this again - overfeeding subjects by 1000 calories caused a metabolic rate increase of ONLY 18 CALORIES.

A cheat meal won't 'boost' your metabolism, it won't provide any metabolic benefits. Cheat meals exist to help you maintain a diet that otherwise might be painful to keep up.

With that in mind, what's wrong with cheat meals?


Why are cheat meals bad?

As mentioned earlier, cheat meals require discipline, you have to be careful to make sure that a cheat meal doesn't turn into a cheat day, or into a 'cheat lifestyle'. While cheat meals can be utilised effectively, they can also be an excuse to not follow your diet. If you find that it's easier to simply stick strictly to your diet rather than employ cheat meals or the 90:10 rule, then do that. You should do what works for you.

If, after a cheat meal, you feel satisfied and happy, then chances are that cheat meals are going to be effective for you. On the other hand, if after a cheat meal you feel like you need more, and you feel unsatisfied, then it is likely that a cheat meal diet plan is going to end up pushing you into the wrong habits.


Another problem with cheat meals is the misconception that they give you permission to eat whatever you would like, and however much of it you would like. This is not true.

Just because it is a cheat meal doesn't mean that you shouldn't be sensible with it. While a standard cheat meal won't set you back, two whole pizzas and a pint of ice cream will.


I know that was a short section, but really the main problems with cheat meals come from self control - if you can stay disciplined and make sure you plan your cheat meals sensibly (scattering them throughout the week rather than having them all in one day), then you'll do just fine.


Diets you shouldn't cheat on

For the majority of diets, cheating is fine, and often welcomed, however there are some diets that are designed to actually change the way you metabolise, and on these diets a cheat day can set you back very far.

There's really only one diet you should NEVER cheat on.

The Keto diet:


Why shouldn't you cheat on the Keto diet

The Keto diet is designed to put you into a state of Ketosis, the simple premise is:

  1. You stop eating carbs (or cut carbs drastically)
  2. Your body needs energy
  3. Your body goes into a state of ketosis, meaning it is forced to metabolise fats instead of carbs to gain energy

And it works, but as you can see, it relies on your body COMPLETELY CHANGING the way it metabolises. This is why people often go through the 'keto flu', where they feel ill because the body is shaking off its addiction to sugar (see: What happens to your body when you stop eating sugar?).

What this means is that a cheat meal (especially one where you consume a lot of carbs) can throw you out of ketosis and back into a 'standard' metabolic state. If it takes you a week to get into ketosis, for example, and you cheat on the keto diet once a week, then there would be no point you being on the diet at all.

Unfortunately, Keto is not a diet you can really cheat on.


Should you have a cheat meal?

Ultimately, what it comes down to is your preferences. If you're the kind of person who can schedule their cheat meals well and stick to that schedule, then cheat meals will certainly be very useful in allowing you to stick to your diet, however if you find that it's best to stay on your diet completely and not stray, then that is likely the better strategy for you.

Experimenting is often the best way to find this out. Try a cheat meal system and see if it works. It might not, and if it doesn't, then don't cheat. Ultimately it comes down to what works for you, and that might be anything.


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